It’s hard to talk about sex in Arabic. The taboo on the subject—both formal and informal—restricts everything from music and movies to the education system, with many Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt banning the topic of “reproduction” in school. The subject is unheard of even in adult conversation and pop culture reflects that. Not only does this make for boring TV, polite conversation continues at the expense of human rights. The taboo allows archaic rules against sexuality to go unchecked, leading to a lack of sex education that directly correlates to the rise of HIV, complications from botched DIY abortions, and the silencing of rape victims.
It’s even harder to sing about sex in Arabic. And not just any sex. Gay sex. What little mention of sex that exists in public discourse has played it safe, even in the more progressive Arab nations, limiting the topic in a way that only reinforces the state-approved morality. The media continues to adhere to this standard, creating some of the most self-censored music around. Record companies in the Arab world never had an interest in male musicians singing about marrying other dudes. But Mashrou’ Leila sang about it anyway.
As a Beirut-based indie rock band, Mashrou’ Leila set out to change the Arab pop music the group saw as hackneyed and too complacent with cultural limitations on sexuality. Lead singer Hamed Sinno, who is openly gay, has never shied away from penning lyrics more indicative of his own life than of the clichéd “boy meets girl” trope that has monopolized the Arabic-speaking music industry. In “Shim el Yasmine,” he sings about a man whom he wanted to introduce to his parents as his groom, and for the past 6 years, Mashrou’ Leila has sung loudly about gay rights in a country that doesn’t have any.
Sure, they’re the first Arabic-speaking rock band to discuss gay rights, and that’s pretty awesome. But the subject is more than taboo—it’s illegal. Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits sexual activity that “contradicts the laws of nature.” Acts considered unnatural, such as homosexuality, are met with arrests on the streets and in homes, along with a year in jail. The arrests aren’t always random; in fact, often they are targeted at cultural hubs that further influence Lebanon’s youth towards a more tolerant lifestyle. At the request of the mayor of Dekwaneh, a Beirut suburb, police raided and shut down various gay-friendly nightclubs in Beirut last year. The police took their actions one step further, teaching a lesson through humiliation: They forced the club goers to undress and be photographed naked in the municipal headquarters.
Since they began in 2008, Mashrou’ Leila have been notoriously controversial, and not just for their pro-gay lyrics. When they had the chance to perform before former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, they addressed him in the audience directly before playing one of their most politically charged songs “al Hajiz” (“The Checkpoint.”) Refusing to censor themselves, they sang every lyric to the politician, including chants of “you fucker.” Their lyrics have charted Arab Spring and the progression of gay rights better than some news agencies, but the band doesn’t claim to speak for anyone. “It would be crippling to actually try to speak for others the way others often assume we should,” guitarist Firas Abou Fakher told me. But whether it was their intention or not, Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics have been used to articulate the sentiment of the youth in Beirut, and they’ve made Arabic Indie Rock the loudest advocate for human rights, and specifically gay rights, in the Arab world.
Once they started singing about sex, more people began talking about sex. Now the cultural stigma around the issue is rapidly changing. Lebanese LGBT rights organizations such as Helem have held lectures and demonstrations. Meem, a lesbian NGO, offers legal support and human rights advocacy. Mashrou’ Leila’s insistence on the subject matter in music was a welcomed change for many, allowing the topic of gay rights to seep into the cultural mainstream, and leaving politicians no choice but to discuss it themselves. Last year, Lebanon became the first Arab country to declassify homosexuality as a “disease,” and just this month a Beirut judge ruled out a case against a transgender woman, arguing that Article 534 should not be applied to same sex couples, as gay sex is not “unnatural.” The news of this court decision in favor of the transgender defendant was cited as a major LGBT victory across world headlines, leading many to speculate that Lebanon is changing a lot faster than we may have given it credit for.
But Mashrou’ Leila says to not be so fast with the celebration or in thinking that much has changed. Not only can the next judge just as easily apply Article 534 to homosexuality in the next case, but institutions such as gay marriage, gays in the military, adoption by gay couples, recognition of gay couples, and anti-discrimination codes in the workplace are all still illegal.
The only real change is that finally people are starting to talk about it. In their first interview with an American publication, Mashrou’ Leila talked to me about the changing times in the Arab world and what Arabic indie rock has to say about it.
Hey. You guys talk about sex a lot. Has the discourse on sexuality changed in Lebanon since you started?
The Lebanese sexual dialogue has come a long way in recent years, and the recent shift in public discourse from one of stigmatization to one of unashamed support is life-changing for many.
And many of these things come into account when we write music. Our personal state, or combined state, what music we’ve been listening to, the struggles we face from the utterly insignificant to the deluded world-changing ambitions, but censorship is not one of them, nor is marketed intentions.
We are political, sexual, social beings, we sing about the things that matter to us on a deep level, and creating music is our expression for that.
There was a huge victory for the LGBT community this month when a judge ruled that Article 534 doesn’t criminalize gay sex. In terms of human rights, what do you see as the next step for Lebanon?
Well, the law itself wasn’t the only problem there. Lebanon doesn’t have a legal precedent system, so the next time a case like this arises, a judge could just as well rule in an antithetical manner, and get away with it. I think the next step is something that’s been going on for some time, which is trying to get more public debates and discussions about homophobia in the mainstream.
Has it gotten easier for you as a band to start discussions about homophobia?
It’s always been and always will be about writing whatever feels right. It hasn’t gotten easier or harder, because people’s reactions still aren’t a basic criterion during the writing process.
It’s interesting though that, perhaps as a byproduct of the way the Arab pop music industry navigates artist-audience relationships, many listeners are often under the impression that they are implicated, in the sense where the lyrics owe them some sort of representation. It’s extremely flattering, but at the same time slightly tiring because you can’t really factor in other people’s sentiments when trying to put your own in writing.
Is this why you want to Occupy Arab Pop?
The #OccupyArabPop hashtag started with our crowd funding campaign, and with our ambition to imagine a space in Arab Pop music for alternatives to the tried and tested formulas spouted by the major player labels in the Middle East.
What needs to change in the Arabic music scene?
We are tired of TVs playing the artists associated with their radio stations, which are, in turn, affiliated to their labels etc. It’s a large monopolized web that is running its course.
We’re also tired of artists who sing about unrequited fairy tale love, or requited for that matter. The music in the region has alienated a large part of its audience, and with the amount of reach online platforms are having, alternatives are growing stronger and stronger.
When you recorded “Shim el Yasmine,” which explicitly discussed the lost love between two men, were you met with resistance from colleagues in the music industry?
These big music industries have settled into a workflow that they know works, at least financially, and are therefore uninterested to pursue voices that might involve a risk.
But I think a lot of our colleagues felt it was admirable that someone was finally taking the dust out from under the rug. If they didn’t, they definitely didn’t say it to our faces.
Many of the songs off your new album Raasuk respond directly to recent events, such as the car bomb in Sassine Square. Where were you when you wrote “Wa Nueid?” (Trans: “And we Repeat”)
Raasuk was an album that took time to write, it was our first production that was aimed at a wider release and at an international standard. But the truth is, we never stop writing until the record button is flashing; and so when we traveled to Montreal we were, for the first time, in a studio far from home completely immersed in the process of creation. And then we heard about Sassine, and we heard about it through the speakers of foreign media and through the headphones of Skype calls, and it was powerful.
When you’re in Beirut, you can gauge the ‘energy’ of the city, the things that the news cannot translate: things like, how damaging it was psychologically in Lebanon, or the subtle shifts in personalities. And being away from all these cues threw us in the dark, and so the opportunity for expressing this became a last minute change to lyrics somehow.
It would have been inconceivable for us to carry out the remainder of the recording process without the changes, because such a big part of putting tracks on record is about emotional expression, and when your emotions are elsewhere, you have to figure out a way to bring them back into the project.
For a lot of people, this song sounds like a battle cry for the resilient, chanting, “tell them we are still standing; tell them we are still resisting.” How has Arabic music changed since Arab Spring?
“Wa Nueid” is probably my favorite song on the album, but it changes every few weeks so don’t hold me accountable. Not only lyrically, but mainly musically. We were trying to achieve the mythical patience and determination that Sisyphus portrays in legend, and the immense futility that of expecting different results from the same actions again and again and again.
In a way, the Arab Spring and the events leading up to it were the same birthplace of many movements, musically, artistically etc. And we tend to see it as an organic thing that produces reactions across disciplines and across socioeconomic classes.
There has definitely been a surge in creative output since the beginning of the Arab Spring, thanks is part to the sudden shifting of worldwide lenses to a region that was previously under represented, but at the same time, music all around the Arab world had begun prophetically becoming what was to become the Arab Spring years before.
Before Arab Spring, you used to lament the laziness of those unhappy with governments. I remember in your earlier song “’Ubwa,” (Trans: “Bomb”) released in 2009, you say “How am I supposed to be political when everyone is so lazy here? And everyone is insisting that their religion is the best color.” Even after Arab Spring, do these social frustrations still exist?
The idea of the Arab Spring happening only in 2011 is a fairly Western-media dominated understanding of how the region’s politics have evolved. For many Lebanese people, the Arab Spring started in 2005, with the Lebanese upheavals against Syrian political hegemony in Lebanon. Those uprisings, like many across the Middle East, ended up being fairly defeated on many fronts. I think the current status of the Arab Spring would allow more people, if anything, to relate to the sentiments of “’Ubwa.”
Your latest album, Raasuk, gives us more opportunities to dance. The title track (which even means “They made you dance”) has a heavy synth beat you haven’t used in the past.
The track is the thread that connects the ideas we had while making this album, including our love to dance, and to make people dance.
The lyrics talk about a man who danced to his own heartbeat, as it were, but this freedom proved to be hard to control and so his heart is replaced by a programmed beat machine, and who dances still, but with everyone else.
We were quite excited by the mood this imagery brought, and by the power of having crowds and whole venues dancing to this same beat, but a world away from the conformed and defeated protagonist of the song.
Do you fear that conformity as you navigate the music industry?
In a sense, the song is about how moving though life completely liberated from the shackles of society is virtually impossible. Everyone has some conciliatory decisions to make every now and then, some defeats to accept, and some victories to have in hiding.
Because of your pro-gay lyrics, do you always have freedom to move when touring?
Ha! I think it’s safe to say we won’t be playing Saudi Arabia any time soon.
What about the United States? You should give us a try.
There are plans for a US tour in the works, and we have been receiving a lot of support from there ever since we started, so playing there is going to be another milestone in the band’s life.
In addition to the politics and current events you discuss, there are often themes of being remembered or being forgotten, from “Fasateen” and “Shim el Yasmine” to your more recent “Taxi.” You guys are clearly changing the Arabic music industry right now. Is that what you want to be remembered for?
That’s a great question. I think most of us would want to be remembered for the kind of love we’ve gotten from our audience. Whenever we read messages from our fans, they sound like they’ve been genuinely touched by the music, like it’s not just another glitzy-star-system phenomenon in transience. I think we’d want to be remembered for that, and for carving our path into the industry despite the difficulties. But then again, who knows what time does.